Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


42nd Annual Convention; Downtown Chicago, IL; 2016

Event Details

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Symposium #92
Future Research Topics in Verbal Behavior: Meaning, Narrative, Unique Influences, and Voluntary Control
Sunday, May 29, 2016
2:00 PM–3:50 PM
Michigan ABC, Hyatt Regency, Bronze East
Area: VRB/EAB; Domain: Basic Research
Chair: Allen Neuringer (Reed College)
Discussant: A. Charles Catania (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

B. F. Skinner's monumental publication, Verbal Behavior, has stimulated more than one-half century of intensive research on the causes, characteristics, and effects of verbal behavior. It is the ultimate operant (Chapter 8, 'The Verbal Operant,' in Verbal Behavior). Verbal behavior is complex, changes moment-to-moment as a function of current stimuli and past histories, and is exquisitely sensitive to the influence of reinforcing feedback. While arbitrary in topography (e.g., compare different languages), verbal behavior exerts high levels of control over action, thought and emotion. The present symposium joins four senior researchers, noted for their diverse contributions to behavior analysis, each to focus on one aspect of verbal behavior. These include the important role of meaningful stimuli in the establishment of stimulus equivalence classes; the compelling role of narrative in influencing behavior; the extraordinary potency of written and oral communications in directing non-verbal actions; and the insights that verbal behavior provides for our understanding of volition and what some refer to as free will. The overarching goal of this symposium will be to provide overviews of current research and theory as springboards to identifying productive areas of future research.

Keyword(s): meaningful equivalence, narrative, operant variability, verbal control

Acquired Stimulus Control Functions and the Class-Enhancing Effects of Meaningful Stimuli

LANNY FIELDS (Queens College, City University of New York)

The meaningfulness of a stimulus is defined by its acquired hedonic value, as well as by its acquired denotative and connotative properties. When a meaningful stimulus is included in a set of otherwise meaningless stimuli, the meaningful one enhances equivalence class formation. These effects are attributed to the above mentioned properties that define meaningful stimuli. The hedonic properties of meaningful stimuli are presumably induced by Pavlovian conditioning with CS+s and CS-s enhancing and interfering with class formation, respectively. This interpretation has been confirmed with experimental preparations. Meaningful stimuli also serve as members of simple and conditional discriminations. When an initially meaningless stimulus acquires one of these stimulus control functions through prior conditioning experience, its inclusion in a set of other meaningless cues enhances equivalence class formation. Thus, the 'operant stimulus control functions' served by meaningful stimuli can also account for class enhancement, and are probably responsible for the formation of denotative and connotative properties. Finally, these operant and Pavlovian effects are independent of each other.

Narrative – A Major Gap in Our Account of Verbal Behavior
PHILIP N. HINELINE (Temple University - Emeritus)
Abstract: I occasionally make the mistake of starting to read a novel or mystery story when I have important work to do. Typically, little of that work is accomplished until I’ve finished the book. This illustrates one potent effect of narrative (story-telling, story-reading or listening, a type of prose, and a type of context), but besides that, narrative is ubiquitous -- in newspaper and magazine articles, in essays on social problems, in political speeches and fund-raising appeals, and in informal conversation. Nevertheless, our account of verbal behavior has had little to say about narrative. What are the prerequisite repertoires for story-telling to affect the reader/listener’s behavior? What are the processes that sustain the behavior of reading or listening? In what ways, besides simple response competition, does narrative-reading affect other behavior? Some of our concepts and related research provide the beginnings of answers to these questions, but a systematic and detailed account remains to be accomplished, and it is a worthy, even urgent topic for our efforts as behavior analysts.
The Amazing Power of Written and Spoken Words
MARC N. BRANCH (University of Florida)
Abstract: One of the most important, and yet poorly understood, characteristics of human behavior is the often astonishing control verbal stimuli can have over actions. Most of humankind’s greatest achievements and greatest problems have root in this kind of control of action. One of the reasons such control is poorly understood is that it is a uniquely human phenomenon that is dependent to a large extent on experience, the details of which are probably unknowable for any individual. Behavior Analysis (BA) is based on understanding how experience alters subsequent behavior, but, obviously, experiments interfering with normal development of verbal control by altering relevant experience are essentially impossible to conduct for either practical or ethical (or both) reasons. I will discuss possible contributions by BA to understanding the power exerted by written and spoken words.
Variability, Volition, and Verbal Behavior
Abstract: This presentation focuses on the 'response' part of the operant three-term contingency. Skinner, Salzinger, Catania and others have conceptualized operant responses as members of a generic class. The nature of that class has been studied in a variety of ways. One is in terms of the variability of responses under different schedules of reinforcement and under different motivations (variable versus fixed interval schedules and high versus low deprivation). Another is in terms of response hierarchies, e.g., under extinction conditions and during resurgence of previously reinforced responses. A third is in the formations of equivalence classes. Most relevant to the current talk, research has demonstrated the extraordinary sensitivity of response-class members and within-class probabilities to direct reinforcement. Stated differently, within-class types and dynamics are controlled by reinforcement contingencies. Although operant response classes may contribute importantly to an explanation of volition (or what some refer to as free will), we have far to go to understand within-class interactions and the rules governing emergence of individual responses. This paper will explore the (truly) voluntary nature of operant behavior, using verbal behavior as a model, and will discuss how operant variability helps to illuminate such voluntary control.



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